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Rethinking the English major

cameron cravings

By the end of this semester, I will have taken ten English classes at Duke, completing the major just in time to graduate (knocks on wood). Some might say this makes me an expert on the English major requirements; I agree. And my main takeaway is this: 

Without much difficulty, a student could obtain an English major at Duke University without reading a single book written by a person of color, and maybe only two or three written by women. 

A couple weeks ago a fellow English major, Victoria Priester, published an opinion piece discussing this issue, arguing that the English major’s narrow, Eurocentric focus might be pushing students away from the field. The English Department Chair, Robert Mitchell, and DUS, Aarthi Vadde, wrote a response shortly after, defending the diversity of the courses and programs they offer.

The gestures these administrators highlight in their response to Priester do nothing to address what I see as the fundamental issue of the English major: its requirements. Of course not every student who enrolls in an English class is an English major, but for those who are, every course we take is predicated upon departmental requirements as much as personal interest or intellectual curiosity. 

With the overwhelming pressure at Duke to complete more than a single major (only 13% of the class of 2019 graduated with just one major), not to mention Trinity requirements, students don’t have the freedom to take more than a few nonessential courses. If they participate in a Focus program or study abroad, the small space in their schedule to take extra classes shrinks even further. I have often had to choose courses that satisfied parts of the major over those in which I was most interested. 

Some of you probably haven’t spent as much time triple-checking the English major requirements website as I have, so let me clarify. The major is primarily centered around a division into three time periods, so students have to take two classes in Area I (Medieval and Early Modern) and one each in Areas II (18th and 19th Century) and III (Modern and Contemporary). In addition to a gateway class and a Criticism, Theory or Methodology (CTM) course, majors must take four English electives for a total of ten classes. 

For Area III, a student could feasibly stumble upon a class about writers of color; for Area II, she would have to thoroughly scour the course descriptions to find a class that features any. For Area I, it’s an impossible task. Instead, she will need to spend two semesters in classes exclusively about white men in order to graduate with an English major. The gateway and CTM courses cover slightly more diverse topics, but the elective credits are typically filled from the same offerings as the ones that satisfy Areas I, II and III.

This structure guarantees that graduating seniors will have taken two full classes on exclusively white, male authors, namely Chaucer, Shakespeare or Milton. Everyone typically takes a Shakespeare class because there is at least one, and often two, offered every semester, while the remaining credit goes to Chaucer, Milton or a survey course like “English Love Poetry.” By nature, at least one-fifth of the English classes a major takes at Duke are dedicated to white, male authors who lived and wrote hundreds of years ago.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the English language spread around the globe with British and American imperialism. For this reason, the Area II requirement has the potential for more diversity, but in the past four years there has not been a single class dedicated to a non-white author in this time period. Predictably, white women do comparatively well in Area II: since fall 2016, there have been three classes each dedicated to Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson. All other single-author Area II courses are white men, mostly William Faulkner, William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman.

There are, of course, many Area II classes centered on a wider topic than a single author. Some of these are courses that Professors Mitchell and Vadde raise as counterpoints to Priester’s argument, like “Queens of Antiquity” and “Remembering the Middle Passage.” And perhaps I ought to give the benefit of the doubt to survey courses like “Classics of American Lit, 1820-1860” because the course description does include Frederick Douglass as a possible author (at the end of a list of half a dozen white authors). But I took “Queens of Antiquity” last spring and can attest that the syllabus was dominated almost entirely by works written by white men, the exceptions short enough that they usually didn’t even necessitate a whole week’s worth of class discussions.

Unsurprisingly, Area III is by far the most diverse time period of the major requirements, especially in the past two years. Classes like “Zora Neale Hurston,” “Music & African American Lit,” “Latinx Lit” and “Asian American Gender & Sexuality” showcase the remarkable depth of the English language and the poignant, captivating stories authors from around the world have written in it, as well as demonstrate that the Duke English Department does have the resources to support classes like these. But does it?

As proof of the Department’s commitment to supporting authors of marginalized identities, Professors Mitchell and Vadde proudly hold up the fact that they offered a “cross-listed undergraduate course on Toni Morrison three years ago.” My initial response was to scoff at the absurdity of their evidence. They offered a single course on Toni Morrison three years ago? For comparison, there have been twelve classes on Shakespeare offered in the last eight semesters.

Professors Mitchell and Vadde indicate that the English Department is dedicated to making progress and is working on creating a webpage for undergraduates that will “explicitly advise students to take literature courses that expose them to the diverse communities and continents that have produced some of the best literature in the English language.” 

I raise them one further: don’t make it advice, make it a requirement. 

The administrators’ central argument is that the English major is flexible and dynamic. They write that “Duke English enables precisely that wide breadth of study of works in English for which Ms. Priester calls.” Looking at the courses offered recently, there is certainly a breadth of study, a breadth that I’m sure was unimaginable twenty or thirty years ago. But while the major might enable students to study many different writers and topics, it only requires them to study one kind of author: white men.

Why are the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer more important than any of the dozens, if not hundreds, of critically-acclaimed books written by authors of color? How is it possible that I have spent nearly seventeen years of my life in school and have never been taught Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, Ta-Nehisi Coates or Frank Chin? Why is To Kill A Mockingbird an American classic that I had to read three times by the ninth grade but I had never even heard of The Bluest Eye until my second year of college? 

Some of these questions are clearly bigger than the Duke English Department. Like Priester, I feel immensely thankful to the English professors I have had the joy and privilege of learning from at Duke. I am grateful to the professor who taught Toni Morrison’s Desdemona right alongside Shakespeare’s Othello. I am grateful to the professor who supplemented Robert Louis Stevenson and Alfred Tennyson with Mary Shelley, Christina Rossetti and Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot). I am a better thinker, writer and citizen than I was four years ago, and I have the professors of the English Department to thank for it. Truly, thank you.

But no matter how many fascinating, inspiring classes the Department offers, the major requirements still take precedence, and the tragedy of the major lies in how these requirements are built to privilege the voices of white, male authors over everyone else. 

I would only ask the administrators to consider what it would look like for the major requirements to truly reflect the Duke English Department’s “commitment to featuring minority perspectives.”

Gretchen Wright is a Trinity senior with a double major in English and Classical Civilizations. Her column, “cameron cravings,” runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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